The Saturday interview - Tony Stanger

TONY Stanger's time in Scottish sporting history is defined for most of the population by one moment of elation at Murrayfield 18 years ago, but Scotland's record try-scorer is now focused intently on increasing those golden moments which live long in a Scot's memory.

Stanger was the winger who plucked the ball from the air after Gavin Hastings had kicked through in the unforgettable Calcutta Cup match of 1990, and crashed to the ground to create a lead from which England could not recover and Scotland went on from to secure only their third Grand Slam in over a century of rugby. He showed great speed, determination and no little courage – his ribs ached so much from an injury the week before he had been a doubt before the match.

Stanger continued to star for his native Hawick and, when the game turned professional, became a leading figure with the Borders, Edinburgh Reivers and then Leeds. He coached at Leeds and for four years with London Irish, who in that time became a leading English and European club, before impressing an altogether different crowd – officials at the Scottish Institute of Sport (SIS). He had spotted an advert for a 'Talent Manager' which poked at a desire for new challenges, and a wish to bring his family 'home' at some stage. He has been in his new role for nearly three months and admits to having spent most of his time meeting and talking, but there is no mistaking the optimistic aura around the tall Borderer. The question is: what exactly does the post involve?

"It's quite a wide brief," he acknowledged. "We are heading into a sporting period I don't think we'll see again, certainly in my lifetime, with an Olympic Games and Commonwealth Games in Britain within two years of each other. Put simply, we don't want to let that pass by without knowing we have really made the most of Scottish sporting talent, and using it to set a platform for Scottish success beyond that.

"It was the SIS's initiative to employ a talent manager, but there is a UK talent team so it fits in there as well. The UK team are very focused towards the Olympics, but I have a specific Scottish focus. It's about being more innovative and pro-active, and using the attraction of the events to motivate and inspire young athletes now.

"I will be working with different sports, looking at what they do, the good things they could improve, where they might find talent from outwith the normal development pathway, and then when you find talent marry it up with the right coaching and development environment, find the support they maybe are lacking, to maximise the potential the sports and the individuals have. I've done a lot of listening and talking, meeting people across the country, but it has been fascinating. Everyone agrees we have genuine talent."

As an example, he was curling this month for the first time, in Aberdeen, and has met athletes, coaches and/or administrators from a plethora of sports in casting his net as wide as possible from the start. He may be viewed as Scottish sport's top talent scout, but he is clearly more than that. Not only will he be looking at ways to improve the support given to athletes in their chosen field, but analysing whether some would be better moving to another sport. That is still relatively novel, but Rebecca Romero has this year opened eyes to the prospect of athletes switching sports and achieving greater success. The English athlete won a rowing silver medal in Athens in 2004, but admitted some time later: "It's a hard life and there are sacrifices, but at the end of the day the medal you get should outweigh them. For me it didn't."

Instead of buckling down and getting on with it, or walking away, she turned to cycling. She had worked in a bike shop as a kid, but had little other experience of the sport, and spent hours learning how to pedal a fixed-wheel bike and ride around a vertiginous velodrome banking. In Beijing in August, she won a gold medal at the Olympic Games, the first Brit since Paulo Radmilovic in the 1920s – in water polo and the 4x200m relay – to win in two different sports.

Clearly, Romero has a future in cycling, but, incredibly, she is considering another switch, to a Winter Olympic sport. Her feats have come at the perfect time for Stanger.

"Rebecca is a great example, because she has shown it can work," he said. "Those cases are few and far between at the moment, and there has to be some motivator to do it.

"Maybe it is because you have gone as far as you feel you can in that sport, or maybe, in the case of gymnastics, you've reached 19 and 20 and that might be the end in that sport anyway; maybe an injury has stopped you doing a contact sport. But we have athletes like that in Scotland, if people are prepared to look outside the world they live in. There is a view that says there is a ten-year or 10,000-hour rule in creating expertise in sport or music or what have you. But does that have to be in the same sport? Rebecca didn't need ten years in cycling because she already had that time in sport.

"If you've done nothing and are 18 years old, you will struggle to win a medal at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, but if you've been playing rugby, doing athletics, swimming or whatever, then you have been developing abilities, a mindset, behaviours that perhaps can be channelled into something specific over the next four or six years. Humans are all made very similarly and I believe there is a sport to suit everyone – whether it's swimming, stand-up shooting, triathlon, lawn bowls or whatever. There are 17 sports at Glasgow, including triathlon, mountain-biking, weight-lifting, netball and lawn bowls – do we have talent in those sports? You know the answer to that.

"It's about bringing that talent through. The very best, like Chris Hoy, find their way through a system, even if it's not good, but there is a level of people with potential talent who need more hands-on work and could, with a little support of a different kind, who could reach the top. Would I have been an international rugby player had I not come through a very competitive environment in Hawick – if I'd grown up in Glasgow for instance? I don't think I would. How many more talented rugby players, swimmers, cyclists are across Scotland giving their all in the wrong environment? I'm keen to find out."

The passion Stanger displays for unearthing Scottish talent and working to broaden their opportunities is breathtaking at times. We all want to see Scottish winners and most involved in Scottish sport believe they are doing their best to create them, but most also know more could be done. The sceptic in me wonders how one man might work his way through the at-times ridiculous myriad of barriers between sports, when some sports struggle to share ideas and information even within themselves. But Stanger's infectious enthusiasm could be disarming.

"I was fortunate enough to play rugby at amateur and professional level and so I understand something of what it takes to be successful when you're full-time or not; the sacrifices you have to make. I did a sports science degree because I wanted to work in sport, but also because I felt we weren't using it correctly, certainly in rugby in Scotland. I loved what university could offer, learning something every day that I could use to make me a better sportsman, and I have tried to use that in different ways.

"It comes back to: are we doing as well as we could in this country? Do we have the right people working with the right athletes? Or have they come together by accident and we're just hoping for, or even expecting the best despite that? Could a kayaker benefit from moving to a different area in Scotland, a netballer joining a different squad? Do they have the right environment, the right competition, the right support, financial and otherwise?

"You get lots of opinions about talent and systems, and what it takes to make it work, but everyone I have spoken to in Scotland says the talent is there. So, we are either doing as well as we can with that talent, and the titles and medals won by Scots in recent times are all we that we should expect, or we are not doing as well as we can and could actually achieve more on the world sporting stages.

"My gut feeling is that we can be better. People may say I'm naive, that I've been away from Scotland for a while, and I know there will be issues to deal with. But I believe that we haven't topped out with talent development because I understand the science, skills acquisition, the development programmes and practical coaching, and I've seen things that tell me 'we can do better'. I will drive it, but I can't pluck a rabbit out of the hat – this isn't 1990 and it's not just a rugby ball I'm chasing – so we'll need Scottish sport all working with me on this."


&#149 Born 14 May 1968 in Hawick.

&#149 Made his debut for Hawick Linden in 1985 as a 16-year-old schoolboy, becoming a regular the next season, he quickly moved on to Hawick. Gained first cap in 1989 against Fiji. Was in the pool for the World Cup in South Africa, 1995.

&#149 Club career took in Hawick, the Borders, Edinburgh Reivers, Leeds and Grenoble.

&#149 Finished career as joint record try scorer for Scotland (with Ian Smith), scoring 24 from 52 appearances.

&#149 Most famous for his Grand Slam winning try in 1990 (13-7 v England at Murrayfield) after Gavin Hastings kicked on.

&#149 Earned a degree in sports science and worked as a development officer in Yorkshire. In 2007, he was awarded an honorary degree of education by Edinburgh University.

&#149 Skills and speed coach for London Irish for four years before taking up new role this year as talent identification manager at Stirling University Institute of Sport ahead of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.